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Roland D-50

Created by nick. Last edited by nick, 11 years and 295 days ago. Viewed 19,908 times. #5
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This is an article culled from archive material, circa 1997.


One of the classic synthesisers of the MIDI era, the D-50 was conceived and marketed as the antidote to the Yamaha DX7 with its unfriendly programming interface and (supposedly) non-intuitive synthesis architecture. The moniker Linear Arithmetic Synthesis suggested an additive paradigm (ignoring the fact that the D-50 could also ring-modulate), and its main selling point was the way in which short, ROM-sampled attack transients could be grafted onto voices generated by a software simulation of a conventional analogue synthesiser, in the name of "realism."

In fact, in my opinion the D-50 was a runaway success for entirely different reasons. Its integral onboard effects and parametric equalisers made it sound much better than any other keyboard in the shop, regardless of raw sound quality. And, typically for Roland, the factory presets were superb, with such patches as Soundtrack, Living Calliope and DigitalNativeDance establishing a pop-cultural landmark and setting a standard for subsequent keyboards for years to come.

Presets apart, the D-50 is a wonderful synthesiser, almost by accident. The onboard equalisers (implemented presumably to make up for the lack of filtering on the samples) are very capable, the (three) effects processors are perfectly respectable for that era, and the emulated analogue architecture is quite impressive, with six independent LFO's available, pulse-width modulation over two different waveforms, and resonant (if not self-oscillating) lowpass filtering. Even today, no other synthesiser (not even the flagship Roland D-70) can achieve the kind of swirling, delicate, atmospheric textures which the D-50 has been generating since 1987.

For a Roland, the control architecture is respectable. A lot of modulation points are hard-wired but fairly sensible; for example, aftertouch can be routed to (amongst other things) pulse-width and pitch. The onboard joystick is used purely for programming partial (voice) mix, or as a data entry control; to my knowledge, it does not transmit MIDI. The synthesiser is notionally bitimbral, with one chorus/flange and one equaliser per tone, but program changes cannot select tones independently. The third-party M-EX upgrade attempted to make the D-50 multitimbral, but in a limited sense (with numerous patch components shared between voices) and with a blemished performance and reliability record; besides, the D-50 only has two audio outputs (usually treated as a stereo pair) so a multitimbral architecture would be of limited use.

After the unmitigated disaster of the JX-10 and Roland MKS-70 in terms of sys-ex implementation and remote editing, the D-50 was the first synthesiser to implement the "memory map" model of parameter and patch storage, undoubtably one of Roland's smart ideas. The D-50 sort-of half got it right; only with the Roland D-110 did the memory map sys-ex mechanism actually make life easy for programmers. (On the other hand, the packet protocol means that there is no such thing as a single bank dump.)

The D-50 was a hugely popular synthesiser which also happened to be good; the Roland D-550 rackmount version in particular is highly sought-after and highly priced. If you have the space for a bitimbral synthesiser with a silky sound and limited intellect, check it out.

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